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Key Questions On Immigration From Rep. Thompson On Homeland Security Committee


2018 is on its way out. But one of the issues that dominated the year is still very much front and center - border security. There's been family separation, migrant caravans and a funding fight over a border wall that's keeping parts of the government shut down.

And there have been deaths. On Christmas Eve, an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy died in the custody of U.S. border agents, the second child in three weeks to die in U.S. custody. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is calling for earlier and more thorough health screenings for children detained at the border. She's also calling for more training for patrol agents.

Democratic Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi is poised to chair the House Homeland Security Committee when the new Congress convenes next month. He joins us now on the line. Good morning, Congressman.

BENNIE THOMPSON: Good morning, Debbie. How are you?

ELLIOTT: I'm good. When you hold hearings on the administration's immigration policies, what are going to be the key questions you're going to be looking to have answered?

THOMPSON: Well, for the last two years, we've had very few oversight hearings on the department. Now, we've only talked to the secretary one time since she's been secretary. And so we plan to do robust oversight on the whole department. It just so happens that the border is front and center now because of what's going on. We're very concerned about the tragic death of the two children. We're concerned about the wholesale release of migrants seeking asylum on the streets of El Paso.

So we want to get to the bottom of why these things are happening. Is it a resource issue? Is it an issue that the policies that are presently being implemented are causing the system to not work? So oversight is what we have to do. It's our mandate from Congress, and we plan to do it.

ELLIOTT: Now, you're not the only incoming chairman who's looking at oversight. There'll be other committees - judiciary, intelligence, for example - who will also be investigating. Could that be a recipe for overreach?

THOMPSON: Well, no. It's how we function as a legislative body. If we are to create laws that make sense, we have to have access to the information. One of the ways we get information is to conduct hearings, talk to witnesses, as well as preserve the documents that are used by the present administration. In order for us to get it right, we have to have all the information, so it's not overreach. It's just doing what the Constitution requires that members of Congress do.

ELLIOTT: What about wall funding? You know, when the year started, President Trump and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer met, and there was some optimism that Democrats would accept funding for the wall in exchange for a deal on legal protections for the so-called DREAMers, the immigrants who were brought here illegally when they were just children. Is that a possible way forward now?

THOMPSON: Well, I think anything is possible. It's just impossible with this president. He continues to decide, basically without consultation - from all we can interpret - from advisers or whomever and just decide that this is what I want to do. Sure, he's president. But you would expect the chief executive to listen to his advisers. He said, if I don't get my way, I'm going to shut the government down. He didn't get his way, and we are involved in this shutdown. It's unfortunate, but he asked for it.

I look forward to January 3 coming. And Democrats, at least, can provide the majority leadership in the House to do what we can to try to get the government up and running. It does not include wall funding, but we need to put the tens of thousands of government workers back to work.

ELLIOTT: That's Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee. Congressman, thank you very much.

THOMPSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.